Changes for Germans?

What happens, if Arab/Palestinians join Germans und Jews/Israelis in the Cyprus-Conferences?

by Gisela Gruenewald-Zemsch, Nuernberg

I do not know very much about former conferences despite of some emotionally loaded and personal reports of participants and my reading of the first book. Thus, my experience covers only the last two conferences in Cyprus with Jewish/Israeli, Arab/Palestinian and German members.

In my view, the conference 2008 was shadowed by a state of emotional emergency in almost all members. Intensive hidden hate, atrocities, contempt, destructive impulses, and a tremendous amount of guilt took our breath and the inner space to think about it. There was hardly an inner opportunity to understand our difficult relationships as Germans and Jews in relation to the German-Jewish(-Holocaust)-History and positioning ourselves as Germans, as a third party in the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

In my view, some of us Germans felt extremely torn between the well-known, but nevertheless painful perpetrator-victim-relationship with Germans as the identified perpetrators and the Jews as the identified victims. Trying to be safe in the relationships with the Israelis and Jews structured the time in Cyprus and helped to have an identity and goal for this meeting.

My idea was, and I felt it physically, that we – or at least me – were stuck defending the Germans’ former victims against new perpetrators, the Palestinians. And I realized, and found in my personal history enough hints that this kind of being indebted and taking the blame can create an enormous amount of aggression.

Realizing and understanding this devilish triangle of victim, rescuer and perpetrator, I began to ask myself what could be my position and role in the current conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians or other political or social conflicts.

During my second conference in Cyprus, 2010, a specific situation occurred which – in my view – gave me an answer.

 In one of the System Event Groups, the “Germans” had an intergroup meeting with the “Israelis”. Although we had prepared for it with several questions, the meeting went in an unplanned direction. Different questions were asked about the political situation in Israel, namely about the relationships between Jews and Israelis and the Arabs and Palestinians and it was a kind of hesitating, slightly anxious atmosphere. After a while, the question was raised, how the Israelis talk among themselves about their personal connectedness with the Shoah.

There were different statements and the last came from a German Jew. She said, that it is not clear what will come next, when the whole issue of the Holocaust, the Shoah and the problems that came from the past would have been worked through. She ended like: `maybe we do not know, how and what to talk to each other and to the Germans, once this topic is through….´

For me it was a very exciting moment, because I felt she’s right: we don’t know how to manage an ordinary relationship and how to be like all the other nations with the ordinary mix of sympathy and prejudices etc. If I as a German am like any other person of any nationality, I am responsible for my dully un-worked thoughts and bad feelings, and I’m less special with my destructive behaviour or phantasies. Then I have left my German “family” and have to deal with the normal fear of being a “monster”. The self-idealization – being either a bad or a good German – breaks down.


All of a sudden, a German member began to ask the Israelis (who obviously widely differed in their opinion about what the German Jew had said) whether there was any public discussion in Israel about the Armenian genocide. Since no one was able to understand this sudden change of direction and topic, so that no one answered, he continued asking why Israel and the Jews didn’t intervene in the 1920ies because of the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. Not only for my ears, in this question one could hear a reproach. It felt for me like: ´look here, you didn’t stop the Armenian genocide, so don’t be surprised about what happened later.´


This unexpected and un-planned question changed the atmosphere completely: What had been a slight, but not serious uncertainty and concern, but nevertheless friendly and polite encounter switched into an aggressive, disturbed, mismatched, and confused group situation.


The Israelis were completely taken aback by this question and felt it to be an overwhelming attack, so that they were neither able nor wanted to answer.


Some Israelis blamed the Germans that this was NOW a typically German attack and that they didn’t want to be engaged with it.


Also in the “Germans”-group there was a huge upheaval and rage about the German who had brought up the question about the Armenians that the session ended in really big confusion.

The “Israeli”-group left, and some of our “Germans”-group cried, others were strongly reproachful towards the one who had asked the question. In my view, neither this not any other confusing topic in our group relation setting  (i.e. the fact, that a German had taken the role of a plenipotentiary without being authorised by the group, went to see the management and talked about his view of the group situation without having been part of it) could be digested…


My idea is (and I shared it with the German Jewish colleague, who agreed with me): we (Germans and Jews) do not know, what will happen if we become able to dis-identify from the old victim-perpetrator dynamics. In spite of its cruelty, it has become a way to organize our German-Jewish/Israeli relationship in an obsessive, but well known and therefore strangely helpful way.

The moment in which she brought up the unbelievable and NEW idea, that Germans and Jews today could get beyond the Holocaust in their relationships and relatedness and overcome the extremely harmful repetitive perpetrator-victim dynamics, identifications became so dangerously shaken that the unconscious pressure became unbearable and led the “Germans’” group to unconsciously step back and follow the familiar route of accusing / attacking the Jews again.

My psychodynamic understanding is that the unconscious pressure stems from being persecuted  by the inner “bad object” as a partial object that is being evoked when the “good object” gets lost. This feeling persecuted provokes raw destructive aggression about being the identified perpetrator with feelings of guilt and – as a consequence of this – being the victim of the victim. This is then turned against the self. The self in turn feels victimized by itself and externalises its aggressive response against the very counterpart who caused such feelings of guilt or victimization.


In the end, almost all people got stuck in the same old feelings: the Germans as persecutors and perpetrators with all our guilt feelings, and the Jews/Israelis with being the attacked victims which were shot down and annihilated.

Remembering this situation after 7 or 8 months, I think, we Germans did not have the energy and power to hold on to the loss that emerges when we try something new and thereby loose the old perpetrator-victim dynamics. This, in the end, means loosing a somehow secure identity which has structured our relationship with Israel for so many years and has thereby given us all good reason to keep away from current political conflicts in which we cannot take refuge to being either, different from our parents, the goodies, or the same as they were, the ever guilty ones.

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